Military vital in times of disaster – expert

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The military plays a crucial role in disaster response and is a force that can be effectively used in times of disaster, according to Lieutenant General (ret) Nadeem Ahmed, who coordinated and managed the response to Pakistan’s October 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods.

“The biggest asset available to the government is its military,” he said. Ahmad was speaking during the International Defence Exhibition & Seminar Sideline Conferences held earlier this month in Pakistan.

Pakistan has been affected by a number of recent natural disasters including flooding in 2010 and the 2005 earthquake. Ahmad planned and coordinated the relief and reconstruction efforts of the October 2005 quake and managed the response to the 2010 floods as Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). He said that even developed countries have been affected by disasters recently, such as Hurricane Sandy in the United States.

When explaining why the military was such an important asset, Ahmed noted that its geographic position allows for the quickest mobilisation and the military usually has experience in handling disasters.

Importantly, the military has a large spectrum of responders available. For instance, military assets include medical care, logistics, aircraft, engineers, soldiers etc. “This set of capabilities is not available to civilian counterparts,” Ahmed said. The military command structure facilitates command and control while soldiers can provide a security umbrella.

Ahmed said the military can do a number of things in times of disaster, including transport, casualty evacuation, damage assessment, supply drops, road clearance, bridge laying, debris clearance, search and rescue and water and shelter provision. The military medical health service can establish field hospitals and manage masses of casualties, set up blood banks etc. Other military capabilities include airspace management, transport etc.

Ahmed pointed out the challenges faced by a government following a disaster. These challenges include damage assessment, limited access to the disaster site, lack of available resources, limited capacity of responders, the need to mobilise quickly, interagency cooperation and the management of international assistance.

The main priorities following a disaster are search and rescue, providing medical assistance, food and shelter and restoring communications and essential services. Ahmed noted the importance of ensuring that a second wave of deaths does not occur due to epidemics etc. He said it was a common tendency for international organisations to take over the task of disaster response and said it should be the responsibility of government to lead the response.